Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Church History and Secular Mythology: The Importance of Knowing the Christian Past

Book Review: Light and Shadows: Church History Amid Faith, Fact and Legend
by Walter Brandmuller (Ignatius Press, 2009)

The reaction to Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code (which posed as history) shows that secular people and many Christians have at least one thing in common: both know very little about actual Church history. The fact that so many supposedly "educated" people could read a third-rate novel and accept the claim of its author that he was presenting history shows that the sophistication of our secular elite is simply a veneer and that many Christians know quite little about the history of the Church.
Into this void has stepped Walter Brandmuller, a German Catholic historian retired from the University of Augsburg. This book is a collection of essays about various events or periods of Church history which attempt to clarify, analyze and illuminate what actually happened and why it happened.
For our secular elite the history of the Church is routinely summarized by mentioning three things: the Crusades, the Inquisition and the "wars of religion". These three things are the answer given in the secular catechism to the question "What events define the history of the Church?". Sadly, many Christians are not able to refute this catechism and its simple-minded version of history.
One essay entitled "The Catholic Church and the Unification of Europe" focuses on the Christian foundations of European unity. Europe became a culturally unified entity because of the Church, specifically because of the papacy and the Church's canon law, both of which were trans-cultural and trans-regional realities. The codification of canon law in 1144 created a pan-European law and laid the foundation for the concept of international law. Furthermore, papal charters granted to universities from the twelfth century onwards created a standardized pattern of education which resulted in a pan-European intellectual culture. By 1200 the universities of Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge and Salamanca were educating clergy, physicians and lawyers with a common intellectual foundation. And then, of course, there is Europe's common spiritual foundation which was formed by the Church which synthesized the heritage of Athens and Jerusalem. It was this synthesis which came to flower in High Scholasticism which laid the foundation of modern science. The modern notion that the Church has only fostered ignorance, superstition and bigotry is one which can not survive close examination and crumbles under the weight of the actual evidence.
Brandmuller devotes one essay to the Inquisition. Among modern secularists this word has become something of an incantation, the mere mention of which is understood to disprove all Christian claims. Secularists (and some Christians) believe that it is senseless to take steps against heresy for the simple reason that they do not think that such a thing exists. Without flinching at the Inquisition's darker side, Brandmuller reminds us that the Inquisition was not launched out of paranoia or bigotry but out of a much deeper concern: "What led to the persecution of heretics--more than religious intolerance or hatred--was the fear and dismay of a society that instinctively felt that its spiritual foundations were threatened." It is worth noting that the major heresies first addressed by the Inquisition--Catharism and Albigensianism--denied, among other things, the jurisdiction of both civil and ecclesiastical authorities and so really did threaten the dual foundation of European culture. What we now call the Inquisition began during the pontificate of Gregory IX (1227-1241) and involved the newly created orders of the Dominicans and the Franciscans in the search for and punishment of heretics. While later, modern accounts of the Inquisition portray it as the result of blind zeal and intolerance, Brandmuller notes that inquisitors operated under strict rules of procedure and that most were genuinely motivated by a desire to prevent innocent people from being misled by heretics. Most modern people see the Inquisition as an outrage because they do not see theological error as a serious problem. Indeed, the existence of thousands of Protestant denominations almost presupposes that a firm grasp of theological truth is largely impossible. It may be that the Inquisition was not so much about "bigotry" and "intolerance" as it was about a conviction that Christian truth is knowable and that departures from it must be addressed. And, of course, the modern world with its genocides, death camps and totalitarian regimes can hardly look back condescendingly upon Christendom.
One essay is devoted to the Crusades, another topic which as treated by modern thinking has become simply a mythology--the discussion of the event has become completely detached from historical reality. To most people now the Crusades are an example of Christian intolerance and violence, but it is important to remember that they began not as an offensive measure but as a defensive measure as Islam conquered the Holy Land from the seventh to the ninth centuries. As Muslim forces over ran the Holy Land, some thirty thousand churches were destroyed including the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre (which sat over the location where Jesus was thought to have been buried) in 1008. Whatever might be said of the motives and behavior of the crusaders, their's was not a war of conquest but a war of reclamation. Perhaps the low moment of the Crusades came when crusaders from the Latin West sacked Constantinople, the capital of the (Christian) Greek East, in 1204. It is worth noting that this action had been strictly forbidden by Pope Innocent III. All the deeds done by Christians can not be considered to be Christian.
The essay "Martin Luther's Reformation from a Catholic Perspective" is well worth reading. It seems that it is now possible to take a rational view of the Reformation. The Reformation was not the rebirth of genuine Christianity after centuries of darkness and superstition (according to the Protestant view) nor was it the savage rending of a unified Church (according to the Catholic view). Brandmuller's essay is irenic on tone but he is clear about the negative consequences of Luther's reformation. It is difficult to see Protestantism as an organic development from the early Church which was sacramental and hierarchical in nature; Luther believed that this nature could be drastically altered and he would be followed by others who thought him too conservative. Thus, Brandmuller sees Luther not as a reformer but as a revolutionary whose efforts replaced the Church's sacramental and hierarchical nature with private judgment. To a large extent, it must be admitted that Protestantism has abandoned the whole notion of a Catholic Church, a visibly unified community of Christians which transcends lines of class, race, nationality and ethnicity. It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to square Luther's notion of the Church with that of the Church Fathers. And, of course, Protestants would eventually substitute their own Fathers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli) for the Church Fathers. While Luther's theological contributions to the Church can not be gainsaid, the fair minded observer has to admit that his and succeeding reformations failed to answer the crucial questions surrounding tradition and church authority and that this failure has only resulted in increased division (even fragmentation) in the Church.
Brandmuller's essay on the Second Vatican Council is also well worth reading. Here he sees correctly that the issue of Tradition is not quite as simple as many Protestants (and some Catholics) are inclined to think. The question of Tradition is not a question of antiquarianism but gets to the very identity of the Church: Does the Church have a visibly continuous identity across time or does each generation simply re-invent the Church and Christianity with it? This question is at the heart of controversies currently dissolving churches into incoherence.


Anonymous Paul Wheelhouse said...

I thank God for my Lutheran upbringing with such a clear def. on Church as the gathering and saints and its catechetical def. of Christianity as the story of the Church, proclaimation of Gospel, administering the sacraments. One book in my library is "The Church throughout the Ages" which takes this same perspective, starting with Old Testament saints/characters.
This is an issue worth emphasizing, continuing to bring the light of truth of sacred Christian history always distinguishing God's spiritual kingdom on earth through believers from the temporal ecclesiatical kingdoms and the mistakes the latter has often made.
Rev. Paul Wheelhouse

August 12, 2009 at 10:24 AM  

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